Bonfante adds H20

Mike and Celia Serrano ponder peculiarities of the basket tree

Gilroy
– A child’s imagination appears to have inspired the newest
feature sprouting up at Bonfante Gardens horticultural park, which
opens its doors for a fourth season on Friday.
In early June, the park will unveil its newest addition
– an 18-foot high playscape in the shape of a giant tree,
complete with a wrap-around slide, nets and platforms so children
can climb up from inside the tree, and regular rain showers pouring
down from the branches.
Gilroy – A child’s imagination appears to have inspired the newest feature sprouting up at Bonfante Gardens horticultural park, which opens its doors for a fourth season on Friday.

In early June, the park will unveil its newest addition – an 18-foot high playscape in the shape of a giant tree, complete with a wrap-around slide, nets and platforms so children can climb up from inside the tree, and regular rain showers pouring down from the branches.

The “Tree-top Sprayground” will be surrounded by a squirt-gun area, water-spraying trees and several other water features.

“It’s something new which we think will attract kids of all ages,” said Bob Kraemer, president of the nonprofit park’s board of directors. “It speaks to something we’ve wanted to do for years – a water-based attraction.”

The new feature, under construction at Uncle John’s BBQ overlooking Coyote Lake, also jibes with the park’s focus on agriculture and horticulture.

In keeping with that mission, the park continues to fold information on various forms of plant life, much of it local to the area, into its rides and attractions. “Learning sheds” with educational movies are interspersed throughout the park, “Did You Know” placards offer kids bite-sized information as they wait in line for rides, and a puppet show at the red and white stage teaches children about seasonal planting and life cycles of fruits and vegetables.

The park also plans to release an upgraded Web site in mid-April that provides interactive educational games for children.

In addition, parents this season will also notice a healthier menu at the park’s restaurants and food stands, which will now offer fruit bowls and more salads.

Officials hope the additions will help continue the park’s success as it moves forward with a debt-restructuring plan designed to stave off bankruptcy.

In 2003, the park posted it’s first profit after losing nearly $23 million its first two seasons of operation, according to financial statements released in September. Figures for the first three quarters of 2004 indicate another profitable year, and attendance appears headed for healthy numbers for the current season, with the park having sold tens of thousands of season passes for 2005 before its opening day, according to Trevor Wilson, a marketing manager with the park.

He attributed the sales to the people who cashed in on a promotion during the December Holiday Lights Spectacle, which allowed visitors to apply the purchase price of a ticket for that event to the current year’s season pass.

The park’s premium pass for 2005, which costs $59.99 when purchased in quantities of four or greater, entitles visitors to unlimited parking, 20 percent off selected food and merchandise, discounted admission to the July 4th barbecue and the 2005 Holiday Lights show. The park will also continue with a cross-promotional strategy that allows purchasers of VIP passes to Paramount’s Great America, an amusement park in Santa Clara, to also gain season-long admission to Bonfante.

In addition to luring more season-pass holders, the park is also lining up more weddings and special events – what officials hope will become a steady source of revenue in the future. In 2005, the park already has scheduled seven special engagements, each at a cost of at least $3,000 per event, compared to just two all of last year.

“We realize the capabilities of the park for special events,” Kraemer said. “That was emphasized by the success of Holiday Lights. We think this has great potential for the park and is a great opportunity for people in the community.”

As Bonfante Gardens heads into its fourth season, City Council will review a proposal that will determine the long-term fate of the park, which owes investors over $70 million.

A development proposal to reduce that debt to a more-manageable $14 million will go before City Council on April 4. Development company Shapell Industries, which is collaborating with Bonfante on the project, has proposed a plan to bring 118 new homes to the eastern edge of the park. The project will create a northern adjunct to its Eagle Ridge golf course and housing community, off Santa Teresa Boulevard.

To help restructure Bonfante Gardens’ debt, the Gilroy City Council in August unanimously approved the park’s request for 99 housing permits on the property, an exception to the city’s growth-control law. Shapell has shifted 19 units approved previously as part of its Eagle Ridge development to the current proposal.

Gaining quick approval for Shapell’s plans remains critical to sustaining the nonprofit park, since it expects to exhaust its reserve fund in its next round of debt payments, due in May. The park would need revenue from home sales to start coming in by fall in order to make good on the second of its half-year debt payments in November.

City Council plans to approve the plan during a specially scheduled meeting April 11 – a week in advance of the next regular council meeting.

“Anything we can do to help them in their realignment with their bond folks, we’ve committed to do,” said City Administrator Jay Baksa. “If it’s as simple as moving a meeting up one week, then that’s a very simple and easy thing to do.”

Baksa predicted that City Council would find few hitches with the Shapell proposal, which the Planning Commission approved in less than an hour at the beginning of the month.

“The one thing about this is that a lot of pre-work was done to resolve a lot of the issues” he said. “A lot of good homework was done on everybody’s part.”

Bonfante Gardens, located off Hecker Pass on the western edge of Gilroy, will remain open the entire week following Friday’s grand opening, before returning to a weekend schedule until schools let out in June.

To purchase passes or learn more, visit www.bonfantegardens.com.

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